Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My Version of Hamburgers

My cooking is pre-meditated. I think about a recipe I want to make for a long time. Or I think about a food and then set about finding the perfect recipe. Unless I'm making a stir-fry, rarely do I just throw in a bit of this or a bit of that. Substitutions are another matter - discovering you don't have something you thought you had happens all the time. But I believe that food tastes better the first time you make something that you've never made before if you make it according to a recipe.

I've made hamburgers before. I understand the concept well. You take ground meat, spices, breadcrumbs (usually soaked in milk) and an egg, mix it all together, shape into patties, and grill it. That's all well and good, except I usually like to skip the breadcrumb bit (or at least cut back so it's not mostly bread inside two pieces of bread), I always want more flavour or spice in the meat, and I try to dilute the meat with vegetables or beans so I'm need eating a whole animal every time I grill. I'm all about eating an entire animal from head to hoof, but in small portions. So I combined my general disappointment with hamburgers with my general disappointment with veggie burgers and made something delicious.

See the problem with veggie burgers is they're not meat. Wait, vegetarians, don't hate me yet. Meat has fat and flavour (they're often synonymous) so it's really easy to make a good hamburger with meat. Vegetables need some help. That's why if a Chef makes me an amazing veggie burger I'll have a lot more respect for him or her than if he or she makes me an amazing meat burger. Unfortunately I've had a whole lot of awful veggie burgers in my life. To get a bunch of vegetables to stick together into a quasi-patty you need an emulsifier (egg, or oil if it's vegan, often) and you probably need to purée some if not all of the vegetables. That can mean potatoes, beans, onions, garlic, grains, carrots - all of which are good things, but they just aren't meat. Finally, you need to coat it in something since the sticky vegetables won't really get great grill marks if they're slimy enough to stick together. So you season well. You add salt and pepper, soy sauce, anything to give your meal flavour, but often it just doesn't work out. If you have to add a litre of ketchup to a cooked veggie burger something went horribly awry along the way.

The trick is to get to the point with the seasoning where you think you've added enough and then add more. Not necessarily more salt because that's not great, but more interesting spices, such as cumin or coriander. I even like fennel now. A smoky paprika is not a bad idea either, and my personal secret is dijon mustard. Not a spice, no, but a good distraction from the mild vegetables. My other trick? Skip the breadcrumbs and egg (skipping the egg also cuts the fat) and try to create an emusifier from psyllium powder. It's very high fibre and ridiculously good for you. So I used a breakfast cereal, All Bran Buds (weird, I know, but great) mixed with a whole lot of smoky Kozlik's dijon from St. Lawrence Market.

The smoke in it also makes it more bbq-y. That's an adjective, yes.

So here I combined the best of both worlds: fresh vegetables with some meat and a whole lot of heat and spice. It didn't stick together very well the first day but the leftovers were perfect.

1 tsp olive oil
2 small onions (or 1 large), diced
1 green pepper, diced
3 small carrots, diced
1 hot red pepper, diced (seeds and membrane removed)
1/2 cup chicken stock (or vegetable or beef)
2 tbsp water
2-3 tbsp Emeril's Essence
1 cup to 1 1/2 cups ground meat of choice (my was pre-cooked but raw is fine as long as you cook until all the pink is gone. You end up with more fat in the dish this way which helps the burgers stick together, but you could cook it separately and then drain on paper towels before adding it.

1 cup All Bran Buds (or 1/2 cup bread crumbs plus 1 tsp psylllium fibre...approximately. Check the serving size recommendations because I've never used the straight powder)
3 tbsp dijon
1/2 tsp liquid smoke (my dijon had smoke flavour in it, so I didn't need this, but it's nice)

I was going to add puréed black beans but I forgot. This would have helped it all stick together well but also would have diluted the flavour.

To get the All Bran all soft and emulsifying, stick it in a bowl and stir in the dijon. I think I would also add the 2 tablespoons of water at this point next time. The buds really suck in all the moisture. I would also mash them or purée after about 15 minutes to make it a smoother texture.

Dice all the vegetables and throw the onions into the hot oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Let them sweat for about 5 minutes then add the carrots. 3 minutes later add the green pepper. 3 minutes later add the cooked or uncooked ground meat. Stir it all in and then add the hot red pepper. Cook 2 minutes then add Emeril's Essence (creole seasoning blend) and let it cook for 1 minute before adding the chicken broth and water. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer about 5 minutes, or until most of the liquid has evaporated. Then remove the pot from the heat and stir in the All Bran and dijon.

You may be able to shape these into patties now, but if you can't, you can always serve them like sloppy joes on buns or bread, like I did for night one. Night two, they got turned into hamburgers and topped with my fresh chili paste instead of ketchup.

Some other options that might work well are to purée the vegetables before adding the meat. That'll make them stick together better. I kind of liked the texture and chew of keeping them all finely diced. I've eaten things with the consistency of baby food lately.

This worked out amazingly well because the All Bran seemed like meat, so even though there was just a cup of meat in the whole dish, it felt like a really rich chili. The dijon and spice mix added a whole lot of punch, but I should have used a sweeter bun. My toasted bread made the whole thing seem too dense. Something fluffier would have been better. It's really nice with lettuce, though, because the cold crunch complements the heat of the highly cooked ground meat. AND I also added my newest favourite condiment (way better than ketchup): Thai Chile Paste, and then cooked some zucchini and tomatillos in the same pot that I'd cooked the chile paste in, after just adding a little water. So they were spicy but tangy and the chile paste was sweet and hot! Recipes to come.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Eggplant with Ground Venison and Cilantro

Sometimes I make things that don't look very appetizing. If I'm just making them for myself I don't put a whole lot of extra effort into making them look pretty, but then in you come, reader, making me add garnishes. I have this feeling you will think I'm a better cook if I add cilantro, for example.

My new favourite thing to do is take part of one dish and use it as the base for another. Like Indian eternal recycling - turning dinner into breakfast, or leftover rice that gets added to new rice, that gets added to new rice, that gets added to new rice, etc. So I knew I wanted to make burritos and hamburgers out of ground meat and I stumbled upon some venison at the Mile End Farmers' Market. It sounds so much worse when you say "deer" but it's the same thing. Remember my wontons? Yeah, those were deer too. I bought a pound of the ground stuff (much cheaper than a steak or even a shank since it's the fatty odds and ends) and put it to work. I used a 1/4 cup for the tomatillo salsa but I wasn't about to cook up a 1/4 cup of it and put the rest of the raw meat back in the fridge. I cooked it all up and added a tiny bit of salt (actually I messed it up and added salt to all of it instead of just the quarter cup for the salsa...but it was better that way). I had some gorgeous eggplants and I figured one way to liven up eggplant is with ground meat. Moussaka has been getting it right for ages. It's like Greek Shepherd's Pie but with bechamel sauce. So I guess they've got it better than us, the Greeks.

After cooking the deer (venison) meat in a large pot until it was no longer pink, I removed it from the pot and added some water to unstick the remaining meat. Normally I do this and just let it sit until I wash up, but I figured I was going to boil the eggplant anyway (my new favourite eggplant technique from VietWorldKitchen) so might as well use the same pot. I brought the water to a boil, stuck the eggplant in and let it boil away.

Now venison is a very lean meat, so even the ground meat isn't that fatty. I didn't really need to press the fat out of it, so I just removed it to some paper towels. I boiled the eggplant whole until the skin changed colour on all sides (this only happens when the eggplant is completely submerged so you have to turn it halfway through), removed it from the water/fat and let it cool before peeling.

Apparently eggplant skin is not very thick (though I haven't tried insulting it lately), so the fat from the deer soaked through into the flesh, making it a little more slimy. This is a very good thing. It adds a tiny bit of flavour, but it adds a lot of the oily texture of Indian bharta that I love with all my heart. I usually mash my eggplant but this time I just sliced it into big chunks and topped it with some ground venison and cilantro. This is very plain. Just salt and cilantro for spices, so I sprinkled it with my chaat masala whose mango powder gave the dish a little punch. Then I added some puréed swiss chard (for a little more bitter green) and I don't remember why I had onions cooked at the time in tomatoes, but I did. It made a strange-looking meal with my sourdough raisin bread from the Plateau Market (my new highlight of the week from LaPerle et son Boulanger) but it was so filling. Eggplant is like baby food and there's a comforting quality to it. The swiss chard is so good for you and bitter, the chew comes from the venison and the toughter chew (or crunch if you toast it) comes from the bread.

None of these things are hamburgers or burritos but I'm getting to that.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Braised Fennel: Bonnie Stern's "Heartsmart Cooking"

If you like balsamic vinegar, the thick, sweet kind, on your tomatoes you will like this braised fennel with fresh tomatoes. I'm not sure if the fennel flavour itself works with the tomatoes, but on its own it tastes way too much like candy to call it salad.

I fell in love with fennel through my roasting bible. All you do is roast them with a little oil and then sprinkle with lemon juice and the whole licorice flavour explodes, but it's not as sharp and it becomes a little sweeter from the roasting. I still can't quite handle the sharp flavour of fennel when raw.

I just wish fennel weren't so expensive. I thought I got a deal on these. Seventy-five cents a bulb, but the bulbs were small and more of the outer layers weren't edible, so really I don't think it was worth it, especially since the reduced vinegar-honey sauce soaks into the inedible leaves and you end up sucking out way too much of it without having it be diluted by delicious fennel flavour. So it's way too intense and my teeth ache and I get a headache and a sugar rush and can't eat these for dinner or I'll be up all night. Ridiculous, I know.

I also don't think the honey is necessarily essential. Reduced balsamic on its own might be fine unless you have a really big sweet tooth and crave the honey. Finally, I think it could use a squeeze of lemon at the end.

Next time.

2 large fennel bulbs (not 3 squat, tendrous ones like I had), bottom trimmed, stems removed, and cut through the core into wedges (you can reserve the fluffy green stuff to use as garnish or use it as dill in another recipe. It's not exactly dill but it works)
1 tsp olive oil
1 1/2 tbsp honey (the original recipe calls for 3 tbsp)
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup water plus a few tablespoons extra

First heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet and when it's hot add the fennel wedges. Let them brown on one side (don't stir them) for 3 minutes then flip them over and let them brown on the other side. How egalitarian.

Add the honey and balsamic vinegar and stir to get all the nooks covered in liquid. Then add the salt and water and stir again.

The liquid is probably already boiling but if not, bring it to a boil and then reduce the heat to medium. Cook, stirring when you think about it (or at timed intervals if you're not good at remembering these things. there's no shame in setting a kitchen timer), for about 25 minutes, or until the fennel is tender. You may have to add a little extra water (a tablespoon at a time as needed) so the glaze doesn't start to stick to the bottom of the skillet and burn. It's already a very intense flavour, so a little diluted reduction is better than a little scorched reduction.

Serve as a side dish or on a salad. I think it's amazing on rice or couscous because the starch soaks up the sticky, sweet sauce, kind of like a good hoisin or teriyaki sauce. Completely different flavour, but just as much sugar. Like I said, it tastes like dessert. Oh! You can just make this sauce without the fennel (and oil), cook it for 20-25 minutes to make a glaze, and then serve on ice cream. It's also amazing with strawberries, and very traditional. If you've never had fennel before, though, this is a great way to try it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What I Didn't Know About Tomatillos: Balsamic Braised Fennel Salad

So I said last post that I didn't know if my tomatillos were the best ever because I hadn't had a lot of other tomatillos, but if these aren't the best I don't know how I'll react to even better ones. When I made the grilled salsa I figured there was soemthing special about the grilling that made my probably under-ripe tomatillos amazing, but no, they're just amazing on their own.

I added them raw to a braised fennel salad I made. There are three tomatillo pieces in the picture above, to the right of the cucumbers. The fennel is amazing on its own and the balsamic and honey reduction makes my teeth hurt from delicious licorice sweetness, but I was completely blown away by the tomatillos. They really are a fruit, not a vegetable. They're a bit sweeter than tomatoes, but still with a bit of acidity...I really don't know how to describe them. They're not juicy like most tomatoes, but the flesh has a lot of flavour...maybe somewhere between a plum and an bakeapple. Hmm...yes, that's not a bad comparison. You need to try an organic tomatillo. If you live in Montreal this means you go to the Plateau, Mile End or Outremont farmers' market and buy them from the one stall that has them (it's the same woman and the plateau and mile end markets but it's a different place, whose quality I cannot guarantee, at the Outremont market). They weren't great in the sweet balsamic, but they were amazing with sweet onions and garlic in the grilled salsa. They were a nice surprise in this salad, though, because they were a break in the heady sweetness. I'll give the fennel recipe next post because it's good, but this is about tomatillos. I think they would be wonderful with meats, but really they should be used in a dessert. I actually think that a tomatillo crisp would be amazing. I'm going to talk to Chef Jean-Paul Giroux about it on Tuesday. He's the Chef at Cuisine et Dépendence on boul. St-Laurent. I doubt he's ever cooked with them before but we shall see. I'm going to bring him one as a gift. How cute is that?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tomatillo ("Hog Plum") Salsa: Beyond the Great Wall

I once made a tomatillo chicken dish with canned tomatillos...in Newfoundland, home of bland food. There was no way I could possibly find them fresh, and if by some miracle they popped up in a grocery store near me I'd have to be stupid to buy them. I think maybe once I did and I remember biting into skinned water. That was approximately the flavour. The inside wasn't that liquidy but it was nothing worth writing home about.

I assumed that this was not the true flavour of a tomatillo. Kind of like having an unripe fruit. If something doesn't grow here there's almost no way it can possibly taste as good as it would when it's fresh from a farm or the wild of a place where it actually does grow. Ah, mangoes and dates...I can only imagine. Passion fruit...I dream about these things. Thank goodness cake doesn't grow on trees or only in tropical rain forests. I'd have to buy a cake tree and hit up my brother for the money to start a cake greenhouse in Montreal. It could also serve as a sauna. It'd be next to a boutique hotel. I'd make millions.

Unfortunately, no, this is not to be my destiny. What was I talking about? Oh right, tomatillos. Not a big money-making operation, tomatillos.

When I found them once again at a Montreal farmers' market I got very excited. Do you know what this means? It means they might actually taste like tomatillos are supposed to taste!!! They were organic, even! I could have thrown a party then and there but I forgot to bring a cake from my pretend cake tree (my cake tree would not allow beet buttercream frosting, and would probably just follow all the recipes of Joy the Baker. It would also make cakes according to season - strawberry angel food cakes in summer, chocolate pudding cakes and molasses cakes in winter, and mousse year-round, of course. Cake trees are always in bloom, miracle of nature that they are).

So I don't know if my tomatillos are the best ever, but they are actually flavourful and made possibly my most amazing salsa ever.
These guys look like under-ripe tomatoes, but there's a bit of an addictive tartness to them that makes them go perfectly with a little bit of meaty flavour. I have two tomatillo recipes - one for a sauce for chicken with a little jalapeno from my Southwest Slow-Cooking cookbook, and one from "Beyond The Great Wall" for a Chinese tomatillo salsa for meat or sticky rice that's supposed to be made with a bit of ground pork and cilantro. I'd actually bought a bit of ground cerf (deer) meat on a whim from the same market, completely coincidentally, and igured the stars would never align for me in this way again. So I made the Chinese salsa and I'm so happy I did.

Traditionally, this dish would be made with makawk (or a "hog plum" in English) and is traditional in the south of China near Burma, Thailand and Laos, hence why it's traditionally eaten with Thai sticky rice. According to the cookbook's authors, Jeremy Alford and Naomi Duguid, it's "jaew" a kind of dish made from grilled and then pounded ingredients, so the grilling gives a nice charred, cooked flavour and then the pounding gives a rough, thick texture. It won't be watery like a Mexican salsa.

3/4lbs tomatillos, unpeeled. this is a bit confusing since tomatillos have skins and peels. I think you want to take off the leafy peel and leave on the tomato skin since it's hard to remove the peel itself if it's not charred, and I'm pretty sure you want the skin off for the pounding step later (don't make this with canned tomatillos because you can't grill them with the peels on and then peel them. It will be a big mess)
1 cup shallots of red onion, unpeeled, halved if large, quartered if red onions
1 head garlic, unpeeled, but separated into individual cloves
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp salt
2 oz (1/4 cup) ground meat [pork has the most flavour, and is what's called for, but I liked the richer taste of game. So whatever you have that's organic or at least antibiotic-free, such as beef, bison, goat, ox or even venison (deer)]
1/2 cup fresh coriander (cilantro)

If you don't have a gas stove this is not going to be as amazing and it's going to take a lot more time. I don't have a gas stove, but I do have a small grill. It's not super, but it has a grill on the bottom and on top and is named after George Foreman, so it's not bad. Unfortunately it meant that although my tomatillos grilled faster, some got squished, and since they weren't all the same height, some got less charred than others. In the end it probably would have been faster to use a skillet.

You're supposed to put the tomatillos, garlic and shallots on a grill screen or fine-mesh surface on the grill or put them in a cast-iron skillet on medium-high heat. Cook, turning frequently, until splotched with black on all sides and softened. It's supposed to take 10-15 minutes. About 25 minutes later I was almost satisfied with my tomatillos. My grill was pretty charred from the burnt juices of the charred, busted tomatillos, but I love that flavour...maybe that's why my salsa wasn't as watery. I'll have to do it the same way next time.

While that's all grilling and you're forgetting to turn the contents of the grill, you're supposed to put the water in a large skillet and bring it to a boil, then add the meat and salt. Cook until t changes colour and break it up so it doesn't get lumpy. Now who really just cooks a quarter cup of ground meat? No butcher will sell it to you in that quantity. So you either cook the whole pound you bought or you cook the quarter cup and freeze the rest. I just cooked the whole thing and 1/2 a teaspoon of salt was STILL enough! So don't go overboard on it. You can add more to the salsa in the end if it's not salty enough...wait, I DID do that, so maybe I should have just added more in the first place...no, I like the flavour of salt directly on tomatillos...I stick with my original measurements.

The browning of the meat should just take a minute, but I think it'll take a bit longer if you cook a whole pound. If you stir constantly, maybe 3 minutes.

When your grilled things are fully grilled let them cool before removing the charred skins of the onions, garlic and tomatillos. If you left the leafy bits on the tomatillos it might be interesting to just peel that off and leave the uncharred tomato skin on. I don't know what this would taste like. Grilled tomatoes are pretty common in a lot of other food traditions, though (British and Iranian, for example), so it can't be bad either way, just maybe not as sweet? Then put all the grilled and peeled things in the blender of food processor and pulse to chop roughly. you don't want a purée. You want some chunk. Pour it out into a bowl and add the meat (or 1/4 cup of your cooked pound) including a little of its juice. the nice thing about deer is it's a very lean meat (so a steak of it is often very dry if over-cooked or not properly marinated) so when ground there's actually a fair bit of flavour (since this is fattier than most butcher cuts of it) but not a whole lot of excess fat like pork would have.

Just before you serve the salsa stir in the chopped coriander. I had organic stuff that was ridiculously aromatic and not bitter at all. So it went really nicely with the slight tartness of the tomatillos and sweetness of the grilled shallots.

Serving suggestion: Yes, I said serve it as an accompaniment to grilled meat or sticky rice, but I would also serve this as a main dish since it's so high in protein. Blasphemer that I am, I ate it with baked potatoes one night and another with thick sourdough bread. It would also be great with a flatbread too, which I'm sure is what would be used in Northern China if tomatillos (hog plums) grew there.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Another birthday: Pink-Iced Biscotti

Put these two pictures together and this is what I made:
Appetizing, I know.

Frosting freezes just fine and I'm not one to throw out a cup of butter. So when I had tons of leftover frosting from my roommate's birthday cupcake-cake I put it in the freezer until another birthday rolled around. Inevitably, one did. I was going to make a cake. I had recipes out and everything, but then I got working on an Ayurvedic food interview and editing takes an age...

So I ran out of cake-making time. What I had left was biscotti - the quintessence of biscotti, mind you: Almond Chocolate-Spiked Biscotti. Like the birthday cupcakes for my roommate, however, I couldn't quite figure out to go about giving someone 4 biscotti as a cake replacement. A birthday isn't a birthday without an iced cake.

Well, I figured you can ice biscotti. You see it all the time. They get dipped in chocolate or coated in sticky things that harden and are delicious. So that's what I did. My icing was defrosting slowly, so it wasn't too liquid like it had been before. I foolishly thought it might stay that way.

How do you dip biscotti in frosting? The unforeseen problem was that frosting is not melted chocolate. Any idiot know that, right? I dipped, and nothing held. My biscotti came out of the leftover beet buttercream frosting completely naked. So I tried with a tool.

A knife would help me create a coating. But then there were all these weird ends. It was more like spreading hummus on a carrot stick than icing a cake. I at least stopped icing about 2/3rds of the way up the biscotti so there would be something to hold on to, but by now I could foresee the inevitable disaster. I had to somehow make it from my house to a subway station halfway across the city carrying these biscotti in my granny grocery cart, then trek with said cart to a farmers' market before ending up at a BBQ (the one that lead to the discovery of Joy the Baker) about 10 blocks away. Hopefully at the BBQ I could rid myself (I mean 'give') of the iced biscotti to the birthday girl.

The thing about Montreal metros is that the city isn't flat, so a lot of the stations have a lot of stairs. The subway cars themselves certainly aren't going to go up and down. That's a roller coaster, not a subway. Imagine that...

The other thing about the Montreal metros is that they were constructed before anyone thought that it would be a good idea to install elevators to make them all wheelchair accessible, and somehow they still get away with this. Where are the petitions and lobby groups, from both people with reduced mobility and people with enhanced mobility (traveling with bikes)?

My granny cart is rugged, but that's a lot of bumping around and lifting and carrying and rolling, and by the time I got to the farmers' market I'd stopped checking my cart to make sure the biscotti were okay. I knew they weren't. The frosting was melting and oozing and the biscotti looked like long rocks that had the misfortune to drown in something slimy and pink.

But I got there. I arrived at the BBQ with a laden cart from the farmers' market; eggplant, lettuce, half a watermelon, tomatoes, tomatillos, cilantro, and red onions. Jean, my tomato, corn, raspberries and now watermelon guy and I had a chat. It was comforting. Ritual, and all. Buried under this produce was my dinner in tupperware and the biscotti, worse for wear.

Then, you know what? The birthday girl didn't even come. I'm not sure if she reads this, but if she does, I'm not angry. It was her birthday and you can't be angry at someone on their birthday. I also had a fair-trade hand-made card from...well I got it at 10,000 Villages but forget the country of origin. The paper is artisanal and thick and beautiful and she'll still receive that the next time I see her, but the biscotti...they met their end. My roommate got birthday cake #2. I figured since he'd enjoyed the first one so much (or suffered through it silently) he may appreciate more beet buttercream. He may have. He didn't say either way, nice fellow that he is. I hope my new roommate is so kind. Oh, yes, I have a new roommate. He has no idea what he's getting himself into. I suppose he could be reading this, but again, I doubt it. This post is rather long. In fact, if you're still reading this I invite you to tell me when it's your birthday and I will personally make you a GREAT, from-scratch birthday cake with absolutely 0% beets. The frosting will not ooze or spread and it will have candles, not a match or biscotti.

Birthdays are so great, aren't they?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Hero Worship and Birthday Cake: Chestnut Meringue Cupcakes with Beet Buttercream Frosting

I went to a BBQ yesterday and discovered Joy the Baker. No, she was not at the BBQ, but her pretzels were. When someone I know whose baking I respect tells me there's a great baking blog I should check out, I'm no fool. I check it out.

This is not her recipe. Her recipes all have beautiful pictures. Her wit is what I aspire to but often fail to possess. She does not take a hunk of butter and combine it with icing sugar in unmeasured porportions, then add some beet juice for colour and a little vanilla extract. Yes, those are the basic ingredients in frosting, but she has the experience to know that you need to be careful with the butter:sugar ratio or you end up with pink soup.

Now it's not as bad as another lady I respect: Renée Zellweger, aka Bridget Jones and her blue soup (I respect Renée, not Bridget), but this is turned out to be far from gourmet.

Joy the Baker would know that cupcakes stopped being popular last year. For awhile there they were the new cake, but then came macaroons. Now macaroons are done and gelato has filled the void. There's a shop in Montreal called Point G (G Spot for anglos...same meaning) that tried to combine the new gelato with the old macaroons. I feel sorry for them. Macaroons are done. That's like trying to wear bellytops again - give it 10 years and the circle will come around again to all bakers' chagrin. They just don't get it, these Point G people, but I suppose a lot of people don't. At least I'm still doing better than that. 

Marginally. My roommate had a birthday. Birthdays mean cake, but all I had was cupcakes. I used a chestnut torte recipe but poured the batter into lined cupcake tins. Light as air chestnut cupcakes, mind you; the epitome of cupcakes, but they needed icing. Then a problem:

How do you give someone 5 cupcakes for their birthday? I couldn't eat the icing because I'm lactose-intolerant and it was made from a cup of butter. But it's weird to say, "Here are 5 birthday cupcakes! Hurray! You're older!"

Besides, my frosting was too liquid. I'd made a ton of it because a cake requires a ton, but it would just slide right off the cupcakes. I had an idea! I'll build a cake tower! Or something kind of resembling a trifle, where the cake is in cubes and covered in cream (in this case frosting)! What a novel idea! 2 cups of icing sugar would replace 2 cups of whipped cream in trifle for a diabetic coma of aging.

Except I thought that would look messy. A birthday cake needs to look pretty or it doesn't feel like much of a present. So I placed the cupcakes as close together as possible in a circular shape (like a cake) and poured the icing over them. The picture above is what happened. I figured candles would make the birthday intention clear but I didn't have any. I had matches, though. So I stuck one lone match in the middle cupcake and waited for my roommate's return.

Boy was he surprised. Nice person that he is, he didn't even second glance it. There was no quizzical look. I suppose he's come to expect this sort of thing from me - the weird food. There was really no way he could predict the pink frosting on carefully placed cupcakes. That would be a scary talent/secret power.

The fun part about sing a match as a candle is there's really no time between lighting it and blowing it out. You need to have your wits about you (as mentioned above, these I don't have. Joy the Baker would probably manage to maintain her wits about her). "Did you make a wish?" I asked.


No response. Well, I suppose he didn't really have any time. Ah well. One year older, one year wiser. Him, not me.

Note: About the title...I don't think I ever told him I made the frosting pink with beet juice. You can't taste it and it's what's traditionally used in red velvet cakes, not food colouring. Food that has a number in its name, like Red2 or whatever food colouring numbers are are not real food and have no place in my cooking or baking. I hope Joy the Baker would agree.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

100% Successful Pouding Chomeur

I love pudding cakes. You take all the wonderful things about cake, heat it up and let the icing soak through the cake, giving a higher icing:cake ratio. You can't mess up the consistency of the icing since it's liquid, but it can turn into a gooey, caramel-y sauce when all you did was add boiling, sweetened water.

Once when I wrote about pouding au chomeur on Midnight Poutine, a reader posted a comment:

"It's pudding chômeur, not AU chômeur... that would mean it's pudding made out of people on EI instead of for people on EI...

I promptly responded that I would stop eating people. My point in that article was that I once fell in love with the pouding chomeur at Soupesoup, a restaurant in Montreal. Unfortunately, it's very much not dairy-free, and it's also made with maple syrup, two things I digest well. Since then I've tried (generally unsuccessfully) to create a dairy-free version without refined sugar. Last time was a disaster. This time was very good, but was certainly not a traditional pouding chomeur. What is a traditional pouding chomeur, you ask? There's actually a really interesting history to the dish. It's tricky to figure out if it was originally made with maple syrup or brown sugar, since the recipe originates in the depression when basic ingredients like butter, milk and eggs were expensive. I can't quite figure out if the pouding was originally made with maple syrup or brown sugar, though, and I also don't think most of the recipes out there are of what used to be made to save money, since they include all of these expensive ingredients.

In theory it would have actually been less expensive to make maple syrup in Quebec than buy brown sugar for the sauce, but I know that other provinces as diverse as Saskatchewan, Ontario and Newfoundland all have pudding cake recipes from this era that call for sugar, and they would have wanted to save just as much money as Quebecers, AND the Saskatchewanians and Newfoundlanders didn't have a whole lot of maple trees to tap. So brown sugar must have still been relatively affordable.

Then there's the margarine/butter issue. Margarine was developed as a less expensive alternative to butter, so traditionally this recipe would be made with margarine, but it's interesting that now-a-days recipes usually just call for butter or some even call for butter in the sauce and margarine in the cake. I think the latter recipes are the most interesting because it potentially shows that Quebec bakers knew that the flavour of butter simply couldn't be replaced by margarine, so they used it in the sauce where its flavour would shine, and settled for margarine in the cake batter would it wouldn't matter as much.

Finally, eggs. You can make this recipe very easily without egg but most recipes have one egg in the batter. Yes it makes it lighter and fluffier, but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be traditionally used since you don't really need it.

This recipe is an example of KNOWING something but completely ignoring it. Like you know you should get the single scoop of ice cream but you get the triple instead, or you know you should vacuum, but, well...

I'm clearly aware of how the recipe is SUPPOSED to be made, but like the bakers that changed the traditional recipe back from margarine to butter and from no egg to yes egg, I choose to update:

1 cup all-purpose flour (I used gluten-free flour which gave an interesting grainy texture that I liked, but for fluffy pillows, go with white flour or cake flour)
1/2 cup cane sugar (this probably also made it grainy. You can use refined white sugar and all that lifestyle choice means is you'll get diabetes a few years earlier. Cane sugar is not a superstar, either. You can stick it in the food processor to makes the granules smaller if you want. It might work)
4 tsp  baking powder (I'm CONVINCED this is traditional since there's no egg and this is what will help the cake rise)
1/4 tsp nutmeg
3/4 cup milk (I used almond. You can use soy or regular milk. Rice will be a bit gross I think)
1/4 cup butter, melted (very non-traditionally I used Earth Balance. You can also use margarine to be unhealthily traditional)
1 tsp lemon rind, finely grated (this kind of makes it into a Greek honey cake when combined with the honey syrup below)

1 1/2 cups warm water (you don't even need to boil it since you're using honey not granulated sugar)
1 cup honey (the original recipe was for maple syrup, but that makes me anxious, literally, so I turned this into a Greek-style dessert. I figured that was kosher because of the lemon zest in the cake. Very non-traditional, but very flavourful, especially since I didn't have a real butter flavour to save the cake from just being a plain, relatively bland, overly sweetened pudding cake)
1 tsp cornstarch
2 tbsp butter (optional. This is for those days when the chomeur can afford a bit of extra butter luxury. I skipped it because the honey was already so flavourful. I'm sure it would have been better with it, though)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F
1. In bowl, mix together flour, sugar, baking powder and nutmeg.

2. In another bowl, whisk together milk, melted butter and lemon rind. Pour milk mixture over flour mixture. Stir until just combined. The more you stir, the less air will be in the cake and the denser it will become. Spread in a greased 8-inch (2 L) square glass baking dish. NOTE: Use one with high sides! The liquid in this bubbles and easily overflows so if you don't have a high-sided baking dish make sure you put a rimmed cookie sheet under your dish to catch the overflow. It's a waste of brown sugar syrup though. You'll be sad when it burns to the cookie sheet, you'll be sadder when it sets off the fire alarm, but you'll be happy that you didn't have to scrape hardened caramel off the bottom of your oven with a metal spatula.

3. For the sauce: In bowl, whisk together water, honey, butter and cornstarch. Pour the liquid over the batter.  Put the dish in the oven until golden and firm to the touch, 40 to 45 minutes. This is absolutely perfect servect with a rich, dense vanilla ice cream. Density is key because the cake is so moist and tender. If you have low-fat or airy fluff it'll just dissolve into a waste of nothing in your mouth.

4. Be glad you live in the 2nd depression when about 20 kinds of butter are still abundantly available, and curse your Eastern European lactose-intolerant heritage. Also curse bland, disappointing soy margarines...(optional)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"It's a Jambalaya-laya": Spicy Lamb Sausage and Chicken

When I lived in Newfoundland my family billeted a choir from Louisiana. Two girls came to stay with us for a few weeks and as a thank-you, the choir threw a big Mardi Gras party for all the host families. That meant tons and tons of food that I'd never seen before. I'd heard of gumbo, rice and peas and jambalaya before, but they're just not foods you generally find on Newfoundland dinner tables. Crawfish? We didn't even import that at the time, about 9 or so years ago. I don't even know if we do now.

When this choir came up from Louisiana each member brought with them a bottle of hot sauce. Not as a gift for the host families, but for themselves, since they'd heard Newfoundland cuisine was so bland. They were right. None of them really liked their touristy meal of fish n' chips - batter, starch, and white fish. Tartar sauce? Really? It doesn't really jump on the taste buds of someone whose injected themselves with chilies since birth. Crab cakes were as if someone had come with a big bucket of water and dumped it on their Cajun cooking and called it Newfoundland cuisine.

So the Mardi Gras meal they made for us featured two versions of every dish, to satisfy the Louisiana and Newfoundland differences in palate:

Regular (spicy) and wimpy (relatively less spicy)

Some Newfoundlanders even found the wimpy versions too spicy! I think Newfoundlanders are about as bad as a lot of French people I know (and probably British too, or Northern European in general) when it comes to dealing with hot spices. There's a reason Newfoundland's provincial spice seems to be "savoury", something you often can't even find outside the province, but makes Christmas stuffing (dressing) in Newfoundland what it is.

Anyway, I loved the spicy versions and the wimpy versions, mostly as comparisons of the way flavour is masked and revealed by different levels of added heat. Sometimes just adding heat wrecks a dish because it overwhelms any actual taste, but sometimes it enhances what's already there. A good cook knows how to balance, and that means having made a recipe a million times to get it all exactly right. Unfortunately (and fortunately, I suppose) when you're dealing with fresh peppers (which they weren't at the time, because it was practically impossible to find anything but an old jalapeno in Newfoundland grocery stores at the time) each time you make a dish will be different anyway because of the individual pepper. So you need to err on the side of "too little" heat, and then bump it up at the end with hot sauce. That's the safe way to do it, but where's the fun in that?

I fell in love with the jambalaya at the Mardi Gras party and spent the next 5 years of my life actively seeking recipes for it to recreate the experience. Jambalaya mixes the creaminess of risotto with the salty, chewy sausage fat of paella (andouille, chorizo or whatever other meat you want to add in addition to the freshness of bell peppers and often the sweetness of shrimp), all covered in garlic, paprika, cayenne, black pepper, and a bunch of other "creole" spices, the makings of which are the secrets of many a southern chef's kitchen. Paul Prudhomme, for example. All those bottled sauces and fresh spice mixes make him a fortune for good reason. You can buy bad ones, but there's no point since it's just a mixture of spices you should have in your pantry anyway. They're usually even made with ground spices, so you don't even need to bother grinding them yourself. Just make sure they're fresh or the balance of any recipe you use will be affected.

Mostly the recipes I discovered in the next few years were really high in fat from all the meat whose juices don't get drained off (that is the flavour, after all) and oil, and you generally overeat because it's like baby food - it is so easy to swallow and let slide down your throat. My first successful recipe called for a can of tomato soup...of all the recipes I'd tried, maybe 3, this was the best, but now I look back in horror. A can of soup for flavour? Was I born in the depression?

Then all I could find were tomato-based recipes and I found them too tomato-paste-y. They'd end up being more like sauce than jambalaya. I wanted to get away from all the tomatoes and I wanted it thick and sticky. This would depend on the rice used too, which should generally be long-grain.

Then I stopped eating sausage, and jambalaya is just not jambalaya without it. Usually there's shrimp and chicken too - you just toss in whatever fresh meat and meat leftovers you have in the kitchen - but the real flavour comes from the sausage. It should be a little hot (or a lot hot), and add its own salt and spice and savouriness to the skillet. It should be the body of the dish. If you take out the body, you're left with...the mind? The soul? Neither of these things are delicious.

But when I found lamb sausages at the Plateau farmers' market in Montreal I decided to use half to make a tamale pie and the rest to make jambalaya. It was going to be a real treat, so I needed the perfect recipe. I think I did well this time. Well, I think Emeril Lagasse from the Food Network plus my tinkering did well this time. Here's the hybrid recipe:
4 small lamb merguez sausages (traditionally it's andouille, but this worked fine. This was a bit of a random amount, but don't use too many. In fact, the smaller the better because you want to take them out of their casings and chop them up fine. The more they spread out in the jambalaya the more each bite will have a good flavour)
1 small cooked chicken breast (optional. The mix of meat in this is really nice, but it makes it dense and protein-heavy, so only use if you want)
A handful of shrimp (maybe 1/2 lb. You don't need a lot, but they're great to toss on at the last minute to give a very tender texture to contrast the chewy sausage. I didn't have them so I didn't use them)
2 tbsp creole seasoning (below...I love that in the original recipe it's called the chef's "essence" - Emeril Lagasse, did you expect all the jokes I'm sure you now receive about women like me cooking with your essence?)
1 tbsp olive oil
3 peppers, diced (green, red, orange, yellow or black. Whatever you want. The bitter green and black ones are more traditional)
1 onion, diced
1 cup celery, diced (I used half the bottom of a head of a bok choy. It's very similar and it was available at the farmers' market. Celery was not. I eat the greens of the bok choy seperately)
3-5 cloves garlic (about 2 tbsp!), diced. This depends how much you like garlic. I like garlic.
1/2 chopped tomatoes, diced
3 bay leaves
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp hot sauce (I actually don't have any of this, believe it or not, so I used a bit of liquid from a jar of open organic spicy salsa. It did the trick)
3/4 cup long grain rice (I used basmati. Not exactly traditional, but it worked perfectly)
3 cups chicken stock (or vegetable)
Fresh black pepper to taste

Creole Spice Blend (use all dried spices and just mix this all together. It's a great spice rub for meat at a another meal on another day, since it keeps in the fridge for a few weeks. My fall-back for fish or chicken is a dijon mustard on the meat or fish and then a generous sprinkle of this spice blend. Cook however you desire):
2 1/2 tbsp paprika (preferably a hot smoked variety)
2 tbsp salt (you need all of this. It's what makes this amazingly delicious)
2 tbsp garlic powder (Emeril and I are very much in agreement on this considerably large amount)
1 tbsp black pepper
1 tbsp onion powder (I don't have any of this...it's sadder without it, but not the end of the world. The end of the world is if you skip the salt)
1 tbsp cayenne (love it...)
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tbsp dried thyme (these last two are the less-expected creole spices that you wouldn't think would be included but always are. Sometimes basil is also involved)

Looks like a ton of ingredients but this is a big mixed bowl of flavours - meats, vegetables and rice. You don't need to make any side dishes if you don't want to, though I always do because it's too easy to eat too much of this in one sitting otherwise.

Directions: In a bowl combine shrimp, chicken and the 2 tbsp creole spice blend. Don't crush the sausage but I am big advocate of using your hands to completely coat the meat in spice. Wash your hands. Cover and place the bowl in the fridge to keep cool while you make the rest of the recipe.
In a large saucepan or skillet heat oil over medium heat.
When hot add the onion, pepper and celery, and cook for 3 minutes. Add the garlic, tomatoes, bay leaves, Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce. Stir in rice and slowly add the broth, stirring to coat all the rice kernels.
 Bring the skillet to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook until the rice is almost tender and the dish is thickened, stirring occasionally (about 15 minutes).

Now add the chicken mixture and sausage from the meat mixture. Try to keep the shrimp out. Cook until meat is done, about 8 minutes more, then add the shrimp for 2 minutes. They just need to turn pink and really don't need a long cooking time at all. Basically if you're not sure if they're cooked yet, they will be by the time you turn off the heat, serve the jambalaya, and sit down to eat it. Season to taste with black pepper first, and only then add more of the creole seasoning if you want. 

Die of spice-induced euphoria.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Candy Garlic and Salt-Roasted Zucchini With Deep-Fried Onions: Tiau

What the heck is a tiau? Nobody seems to know. I googled and googled, and then gave up and asked people, and still I have no satisfactory response. Chefs are always coming up with elaborate names for dishes, but I'm sure this one has a history. It's from Josée di Stasio's "A la di Stasio" cookbook, and this woman is neither careless not snooty. I think it may be related to the pattern created by stacking the vegetables, or it may just be "stacked vegetables" and have nothing to do with the pattern. Does that mean it's a big structure? A leaning tower of vegetables?

7 ingredients and some are optional:

Zucchini (mandatory if you're me)
Tomatoes (optional...unless you're Italian, I suppose)
Garlic (the best part of the dish, but in theory you could do without)
Onions (the guilty pleasure of the dish, but you could go without)
Olive oil (no where near optional)
Salt (you'll hate yourself for skipping this)
Herbes de Provence (I'm fresh out, so any fresh or dried herb works fine. I used oregano, but more traditional would be basil, parsley, thyme or sage, I suppose)

Oh, I lied. Add some fresh black pepper (it's optional, too, but it's a nice addition)

This is the ultimate gourmet but simple side dish (aka "Italian"). You get all your vegetables, but you load it up with a ton of olive oil. The garlic turns into crunchy candy, the onions into melting savouriness, and the zucchini into meaty, flavourful slices of my own personal heaven.
 The first time I made this I only had one small tomato, so I diced it up and scattered it on top of the stacked zucchini, but the next time I did it properly and sliced the tomatoes thick. The dish looked better, but the tomatoes were too juicy and acidic, and a little bitter, and made the meal disappointing. So I promote the diced tomato method or none at all. If you wait for an hour to cook something, and your anticipation and expectations build, it's no fun getting to the finish line only to discover that you get a flimsy certificate for the win, not a trophy, not even a small medal or goody bag - just acidic tomatoes.

Preheat the oven to 400 Fahrenheit. Slice a bunch of tomatoes (maybe), zucchini and (significantly less) onion into 3/8-inch slices (a little thinner is better because they'll cook a little fast, and if at the end of the hour you're getting a little antsy to eat, you can probably pull the dish out a little early. An hour's an awfully long time sometimes).

Mince the garlic. Don't chop. Normally I just finely chop when it says mince. My garlic press is junk. It does odd things to the garlic and kind of makes it seem like spaghetti squash the way the tendrils have a strange texture. In this case, you need to mince. The garlic needs to be that thin to roast properly and become delicious bundles instead of bitter pieces (for those who don't know, a mince is just a very, very, very, very fine chop, and home chefs generally use a garlic press to achieve it).
Take a large baking dish (or two if you love leftovers like me - makes great roasted vegetable sandwiches the next day) and line the bottom with the onions, half the garlic, a sprinkle of good salt, your herb of choice, and some grinds of fresh pepper. Then pour over about 2-3 tbsp of olive oil. I've never actually measured this. You just want a fair bit. This is Italian, after all, so add lots. Make the dish correctly the first time, and then play with amounts the next.

Then stack the tomatoes and zucchini (green zucchini and yellow if you can find them, just to make the dish look pretty) in a way that looks artistic on top of the onions. Sprinkle with the remaining minced garlic, some more (a generous amount) of salt, some more of your herb, some grinds of black pepper, and another 2-3 tbsp of olive oil. Do make this recipe with less oil you could put all the vegetables in a large bowl and add a few tablespoons of the oil. Then mix it in with your hands, and THEN place the onions and garlic in the baking dish, and top with the stacked tomatoes and zucchini.

My garlic clumped together because minced garlic doesn't really like to sprinkle...this was amazing. I don't think I'd pre-toss the vegetables just for this reason. The garlic needs the oil to roast well and mellow out, but if you toss it with the other vegetables it would spread out properly and not turn into clusters.
Don't over-bake this. Stick it in the oven for 1 hour. It may need a bit more time if your vegetables are thick, but probably not. With the tomatoes in it, there's not a big chance of the dish drying out and things getting stuck to the bottom, but even if you don't use a lot of tomatoes, like I did the first time, there should be enough oil and liquid from the zucchini to create a pool on the bottom. THAT's why the onions are so incredible. They've sat at the bottom the whole roasting time and soaked it all in. So when you serve the dish there should be puddles of oil and onion and the latter is undeniably delicious. It's basically become onion confit, but without the sugar that's usually associated with it. Olive oil deep-fried onions...

Deep-fried garlic is not as exciting, and neither was the tomato, but my lovely salted zucchini....I think I ate a whole dish of these, and was very thirsty afterward. Once, I burnt the dish a little and the onions on the bottom charred! It was kind of like onion chips, though. It will probably give me cancer, but it also gave me so much joy. Toss up?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

One-Ingredient Ice Cream

Know those cookbooks that are called "5-Ingredient Dinners!"? It's the exclamation market that really does it for me - I don't get how people can get so excited by cream of mushroom soup, because inevitably Campbell's is called in to play in these poor excuses for well-rounded meals.

Still, when I was forwarded a recipe of a 1-ingredient, dairy- and soy-free ice cream I was both excited and skeptical. I guess it's the optimist in me. Some would just call it gullibility, but in this case those people would be wrong. Hurray!

You have to like bananas for this one, but if you even only like them just a little, the texture will win you over. Take some overripe bananas (lots of brown spots...no mold) and stick them in the freezer. Lots of people do this anyway, because if you're going to bake with them it really doesn't matter if the peel goes brown and the flesh loses its consistency. In fact, that's exactly what you want. In the freezer the bananas will start looking bad, but look past mere appearances and anticipate the most incredible effect of freezing:

When you purée frozen bananas their texture loses the graininess and becomes completely smooth!!!!

There are other fruit that are improved when you freeze them, like grapes and lychees, but those are because the sugar intensifies and they taste sweeter. Bananas change consistency! I actually only figured this out when I made the "raw" banana cream pie and then had to freeze the leftovers. Eating the frozen pie (because I'd NEVER stick it in the microwave to defrost was SO good, like an ice cream cake, because all of a sudden the little pieces of nuts and rough texture were gone, magically smoothed out by the miracles of freezing.

1. Stick your bananas in the freezer - however many you want since there are no other ingredients to add and with which to balance quantities (You can pre-peel and roughly chop them before freezing to make the next step easier if you want)
2. Remove from freezer, peel, and roughly chop the bananas. Once they're slightly thawed this will work better, and the ice cream will blend a little more easily.
3. Place in blender or food processor and blend on a high speed.

The only problem is because this is so thick and creamy it may not blend too well in a blender, so be careful pushing it down with a spatula. Too many spatulas have met their end this way. Also, too many eyes have ended up with rubber in them from flying spatulas...

My favourite time to eat ice cream is when it has just started to melt a little, that helps get rid of the granulated texture, so this is perfect, since while the ice cream's been puréeing its also been warming up, melting a little, and smoothing out your delicious treat.

Here's the original website. You can add things, like peanut butter or honey, but try it once on its own before you start to experiment. If you like bananas, and you like ice cream, you'll like this.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A New Farmers' Market: Almost "Raw" Banana Cream Pie

You might think I'd be getting farmers' market-ed out by this point. How can I keep up my frenetic pace of purchasing fresh produce? Well, it's not like I buy a week's worth of groceries everywhere I go. I buy one or two items, and only what I need for specific recipes I have planned (plus a few whimsical purchases (yes, I call half a dozen corn a "purchase of whimsy"...). My last expedition was to the Fete Éco-Bio Paysanne out at Tohu, the home of Cirque du Soleil. I was expecting more a of a farmers' market setup with tons of fresh produce, and there was some of that, but mostly it was companies offering samples of products, everything from energy bars to soy and rice milk, to yogurt, cheese, ionic foot baths, reflexology, skin care, make-up and two raw restaurants' booths. There was a lot of variety, but I found a conversation I had with a "raw" woman the most interesting.

She started off by explaining the concept of "raw" in a very much "holier-than-thou" kind of way, discussing how bad everything else was for your body, and eating raw is the best thing in the world for absolutely everyone. She got into talking dogmatically about soaking nuts, at which point I interrupted her practiced rant to tell her about the raw banana cream pie I had just made. I told her, self-congratulatorily, that I'd soaked and dehydrated the nuts, but before researching the recipe I hadn't known that this should be done. Her response was something along the lines of, "Sorry to burst your bubble, but almost as important as soaking your nuts is the length of time for which you soak them," and certainly I hadn't soaked them properly, even though she didn't ask me for specifics. I went home and found out later (since she didn't know off-hand...) that almonds need 8-12 hours, but cashews only need 2-3. Now I wondered if soaking for too long was an issue, because I certainly hadn't under-soaked them, but this woman had berated me for my nut ineptitude. Apparently it's not really an issue for most nuts, but cashews are already processed twice so they really don't need much soaking to get them soft. Also, if they soak too long, or dry too slowly, they get a "disagreeable" taste. The soaking is supposed to remove the enzyme-inhibitors that make it harder to digest the nuts, but cashews you don't have so much to worry about because of the processing. Walnuts, brazil nuts, macademia nuts, etc. soak longer

Anyway, the point is that I got away from that booth fairly quickly and found my way to the Crudessence booth, my favourite raw-food restaurant in Montreal. They had samples of their "cheese"-cake that was FAR superior to both my raw orange chocolate cheesecake and this banana cream pie, which were both very good, mind you.I think it's mostly because they use a LOT of agave nectar so it's incredibly sweet.

I'll get on with it now. I got this recipe from the same raw site as my last orange chocolate cheesecake, Rawmazing, and I decided to just do one big pie instead of mini, what they call "individual tart servings", but which are much too big for that. This is a perfect dessert when you want to be full after a meal without eating a whole bunch of sugar and things that aren't "good for you". This is NOT low in fat or sugar, but it's all the healthy kinds - nothing refined, nothing saturated.
1 1/2 cups walnuts, soaked and dehydrated
1 cup brazil nuts, soaked and dehydrated
5 fresh dates (soaked until soft. After doing some research it seems that medjool dates are the dates of choice for raw recipes. They're much bigger than the pitted dates you'll find at bulk places. I actually used fresh Iranian dates, which are smaller in size, but much juicier. They also don't have that intensely sweet cough-syrupy taste to them. Good medjools don't either, but I was eating my way through the box of fresh dates anyway AND you don't have to soak fresh ones. Les Douceurs du Marché as well as the bulk place in the Atwater market carry them, but I've seen them in P/A supermarkets and La Vieille Europe on St-Laurent. Also, who knows how long you're supposed to soak the dates for! At least there are presumably no enzyme-inhibitors in those.

The original recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of coconut butter in the crust as well, but I just skipped it since the orange cheesecake recipe had the same kind of crust but didn't call for it and I'm slightly intolerant.

So you need to soak the walnuts and brazil nuts for at least 8 hours (overnight is fine) in at least twice as much water (preferably at room temperature covered in a breathable material like a clean kitchen cloth). You can also put them in the fridge, which I think doesn't work as quickly, but is safer for contamination. When you're fermenting anything (and that's basically what this is doing to the nuts) I don't trust "room temperature". In the morning drain and rinse the nuts, place them on a baking sheet (or several) and put them in your oven on the lowest heat with the door open for 12-24 hours. My brazil nuts and walnuts dehydrated well this way, but I had the cashews in a better-insulated dish, so they didn't dry out completely. This was fine, though, since I was using them right away and they were just supposed to be soaked and not dehydrated for the banana cream pie filling below. NOTE! I soaked extra cashews and the ones that didn't dehydrate completely after the soaking got moldy in my cupboard! Freezing them with a little water left in them is fine, I believe, but here's where "room temperature" comes back to haunt you. Throwing out formerly-delicious cashews is sad, but very necessary.

Pulse walnuts and brazil nuts in food processor until coarsely chopped. Add the dates dd to food processor with coconut butter (or not). Process until well blended. You might need to press down to get everything to process well, so be careful. Press into a large pie shell, reserving about 1/4 cup of the filling for garnish. I ended up with a bit too much filling, so you can either snack on it or make an extra little tart. The topping also works well on top of yogurt (very not-raw, I know, though ironically I only eat "raw" (unpasteurized and un-thermised) cheeses and probiotic (similar) yogurts anyway. The crust should be 1/4″ thick all around, but who can actually tell? Just make it as thick or thin as you want. It'll add some savoury-ness and crunch to the pie since the filling is creamy and sweet. I'll just say "crust to taste" and leave it at that.
2 cups cashews (soaked 3-4 hours, not dehydrated, but dehydrate any extras you're not using for this recipe)
1 cup young coconut flesh (doesn't that just sound creepy? For a type of eating that doesn't eat animal life this sounds awfully meat-a-tarian. I skipped this because coconut and I don't get along, and just used an extra banana and an extra 1/4-1/2 cup of cashews. It makes the filling less creamy and rich (probably the difference between my cake and the amazing one at Crudessence) but my stomach will be happier. 
1/4 cup coconut water (from fresh coconut). Since I didn't use the coconut I just used water here.
1/4 cup coconut butter (I used 3 tablespoons of earth balance. The flavour is strong and creamy. If you're not vegan or lactose-intolerant, I very much promote using amazing cultured butter here. There's also Becel vegan, which in my opinion tastes better than earth balance (even better if you live in the US and can find the soy-free version of earth balance) but I hate supporting Unilever, the becel company
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 cup raw honey (the recipe calls for agave, but I don't like it. Honey has a higher glycemic index, but it also has more flavour, and my unpasteurized "raw" version is delicious.
1 vanilla bean...or 1/2 tsp vanilla extract. Yeah, vanilla beans are expensive...but so is my organic, THICK vanilla extract. I really need to make my own extract. It's just vanilla pods and alcohol.
2 Bananas, sliced (I used 3 because I replaced the coconut flesh)

Your blender or food processor gets a workout. You need to clean it out (or not if you don't mind an imperfect texture in your filling) after making the crust. I processed the cashews, 1 banana and the water first. Then I added the lemon juice, honey, earth balance and one more banana. It was really hard to process this since it's very thick, so be very careful if you press down into the blender when it's turned on. If you make a lot of these desserts, invest in a good food processor or vitamix. When it's all mixed, add the last sliced banana (the first two just need to be roughly chopped so they blend, but this one should be a little more carefully sliced) and just stir. Don't blend it in. Pour the filling into the nut crust, sprinkle the top with the remaining crust, and refrigerate for 30 minutes. The pie will thicken as it cools, and the top will turn a darker shade of purple since the banana oxidizes, which is beautiful. 
The online recipe says you can drizzle with "raw" chocolate, but I didn't like the recipe since I didn't have any cacao butter and I didn't want to use anymore earth balance to replace coconut butter.

I would have been more happy with just finding some really good quality dark chocolate, melting it, and drizzling it over top. You could also melt it with a little sweetener (agave or honey) to make a bittersweet chocolate with a high percentage of cacao into a semisweet chocolate without the refined or cane sugar generally used, or add a little almond milk to turn it into milk chocolate...so many options.

Oh, and since this cake only lasts a few days in the fridge, freeze it after 2. It's even better when you eat it frozen since the banana becomes silken and smooth.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Peppermaster: Blueberry Miso Vinaigrette

I sampled every single maple- and dairy-free vinegar and sauce at the Peppermaster tent in the Plateau Farmers' Market. That's about 20 different condiments. Afterward, everything burned, and I hadn't liked any of the hot sauces at all, "peppermaster" though he self-proclaimedly was. Instead I bought a blueberry vinegar that was incredibly pungent on its own. It had made me wrinkle my nose at it, but that's what a vinegar should be. You don't buy a vinegar because it's smooth, after all.

So how can a peppermaster get away with selling a blueberry vinegar? He calls it blueberry vinegar with black pepper. You don't really taste the black pepper, and it's about the same (or worse, because the black pepper wouldn't be as freshly grated) than having a pure blueberry vinegar and grating fresh black pepper into it (since the pepper is a little muted by the vinegar), but it's really hard to find a really good blueberry vinegar. It's even less common to be able to sample one before buying.

This vinaigrette dilutes the vinegar with yogurt and sweetens it with honey. Feel free to use agave nectar or sugar instead, but I actually have a blueberry honey so that worked nicely.

Blueberry Miso Vinaigrette

2 tbsp miso
1 tbsp blueberry vinegar (or apple cider, or rice wine vinegar, or other vinegar)
3 tbsp plain yogurt
1 tsp honey
2 cloves garlic, minced (or 1/4 tsp garlic powder)
2 tsp olive oil

Because of the yogurt in the recipe you don't need a lot of oil. I just give it a splash. Actually I'm pretty loose with most of the ingredients. As long as you taste it after to see what it needs more of, you're golden.

First mix the miso and vinegar to get the clumps out of the miso, then add everything except the oil. You can shake it or stir it or whisk it to combine. Then add the oil in a stream as you stir to emulsify it. The vinaigrette only lasts a few days in the fridge, so use it up fast or make a half recipe. It works really well as a dip for vegetables (especially carrots and tomatoes, or any sweet vegetable), and it worked especially well for raw, shaved beets with a tiny bit of orange juice on salad.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Refried Beans: "Southwest Slow-Cooking"

How can you slow-cook refried beans?

I have a cookbook I never use. Everyone has those, I know, but for me to own a cookbook and never use it there has to be something wrong with it. This one looks so beautiful. I had such high-hopes for it when I got it, but nothing that I've ever made from it has turned out well. The first time it was the fault of un-ripe tomatillos. The second time there was really no excuse. Dismayed, I put the book aside, until now.

I returned to it with skepticism. All I needed to do was make refried beans. Yes you can buy a can of refried beans for $1.00 when they're on sale at the grocery store, but all that sodium...sometimes there's even lard involved (the more traditional kinds) or tons of some other kind of disgusting hydrogenated fat or shortening. No, I would make my own. They're even cheaper this way, and should be more delicious since they'll be much fresher. The last time I made them was in my first Toronto apartment. I remember making a breakfast of refried beans, eggs and salsa. It doubled as lunch. Not brunch. I ate two meals of it that day. The beans were under-salted and under-other-spiced, but I still loved the texture. Beans are hard to digest, so I didn't (and don't) do this regularly, but sometimes I get a craving. They're also about the only thing I like about brunches at restaurants (huevos rancheros), though I often am completely disappointed (I don't ask what's in the beans, they're definitely never home-made, and I can't have the sour cream anyway...but the guacamole can make the meal).

Anyway, I cooked up a bunch of black beans (pinto beans are just as traditional, if not more so), skimmed off the scum, and used turmeric to reduce the toxic enzymes that cause digestive woes. I heard they're toxic, but please prove me wrong if you know better? I mean, not horribly toxic, but enough to upset your digestion a little (I think they work the same way as in nuts, and that's why "raw" foodists pre-soak and dehydrate their nuts, as well as sprout them). Then I went to this book and found their refried bean recipe. It was too easy...

I didn't cook the beans in the slow-cooker like they said just because you can't skim off the scum that way. So I jumped to the next step of adding the spices. Normally refried beans having a "re-frying" step, as the name implies, but these say to just add the spices to the cooking beans. Nope. I will re-fry, thanks. So I turned to the internet and found another recipe that calls for cooking in pork fat and adding garlic and onion. Then I just did it my way...

I took about a chunk of my frozen lamb fat and melted it in a big skillet (lamb instead of pork, for flavour), then added 5 minced cloves of garlic. I let it cook for a good 8 minutes to caramelize it before stirring in the beans (about 2 cups), a tbsp of fresh oregano, 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon, and 3/4 tsp of salt. The salt is what will really make it flavourful, so I don't skimp here.

This all got stirred around to coat and then I tried mashing the mixture in another bowl to no avail. I gave up and tossed it in the blender in batches, pushing it down dangerously with a spatula to make it purée. The trick is to add a little water or broth to get it to the right consistency. Dry refried beans suck, but this shouldn't be soupy either. Broth is more flavourful than water, but since this was going into another recipe, not just being eaten on its own, I wanted to be careful with the sodium content, even though I'd added a fair bit of salt already.

Well, it worked. My best refried beans ever. It was all about the fleur de sel I used. A little went a long way. The fresh beans were so much better than canned, too. It may look disgusting, but any Southwestern food-loving person would be hard-pressed to say these weren't good refried beans. They made my Tamale Pie with Ground lamb, lamb sausage and chili-cornmeal crust to-die-for.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

An Experience In Life: Tamale Pie With Chili-Cornmeal Crust

We all have those days, the ones when what should go perfectly smoothly turns into a disaster. 

I co-host a podcast on Midnight Poutine. It's kind of the highlight of my week. Probably better even than co-hosting the Friday Morning Show After on CKUT Radio (I have some audio excerpts at my other blog, Interculturiosity, that you can listen to if you don't want to pick through the archives in the link). Basically the day of the podcast plotted against me. I used to live in an apartment on the same  street where the podcast gets recorded. It was my street! How do you get lost going to your old street? I even noticed that the houses on the walk up the street to the supposed house were different. "Oh, that person must have completely re-landscaped their front lawn!....I don't recognize that bench," but I thought nothing of the changes because it's Outremont and people have money enough for such renovations. I even figured I'd walked passed the street that's supposed to intersect my old street halfway up it...twice! So obviously I'm an idiot and it's completely my fault. How can I blame the universe for such stupidity? Basically, I wasted 2 hours of my life trying to get to this recording session of the podcast, plus all the work I'd done finding music, writing up commentary and listening to the other songs to have an informed opinion of them for the show. Wasted. An experience in life...like my blueberries.

When I first moved to Montreal I went to Jean-Talon market. If you're interested in food and cooking, and you live in Montreal, that's what you do - go to Jean-Talon. The chaos, the havoc, the smells, the tastes (not as friendly as St. Lawrence in sampling, mind you)...it's a city block of joy for me. Basically, if someone took me to Jean-Talon, not knowing me very well, because it was THEIR favourite place, I would probably marry them on the spot. That or live common law, happily, and refuse a commitment ring in favour of a pound of oysters...but that's just me.

Anyway, one of the first times I went to the market I took my granny cart - one of those old lady carts that I'd seen in Chinatown in Toronto before I moved. Ever so practical, those old Chinese Grandmothers. Mine was even uncomfortably low to the ground, intended for short women, making it difficult for me (though not a tall woman) to drag behind me. I walked the 30 minutes through Outremont, the Mile End, Little Italy, and the beginnings of the cultural mélange that happens on rue Jean-Talon all the way to the market. Being the end of the summer, I loaded up on fresh produce until my cart was full. For me, the beginning of September means buying as many fruit as you can to freeze for the lean months to come. So that's what I did. I topped off my laden cart with $20 worth of Quebec blueberries - the wild ones that actually taste like something, not the big, fat New Jersey ones that are all brawn and no brain - flesh and no flavour. 

I was not going to walk my full cart back to Outremont. My back was crying out for a better method, so I took the metro. The subway in Montreal is notoriously awful, but seemingly only to people who have experienced other, more successful and efficient, subway systems. Torontonians, to put it in perspective, even the Toronto system is better than Montreal. At Jean-Talon metro there is no elevator. Some of the multiple entrances don't even have escalators, which means you're lugging your heavy stuff wherever you go. God forbid you try to leave the province with a suitcase. Impossible unless you're a Russian weight-lifter. If you're a small woman, you can carry a shoulder bag and no more, without assistance. 

Fortunately the Montreal population is extremely kind. I made it down my first escalator and first flight of stairs without incident. Then I got to the big flight - approximately 60 stairs. I had a method, you see. I take the lower part of the cart in my left hand and jam the bar handle into my hip. Holding the stair railing with my right I shuffle step down the stairs. It worked fine, but when a nice gentleman offers to help, you don't say no. I lifted from the horizontal bar handle and he lifted from the back...and there went my blueberries.

They tumbled all the way down the 60-odd steps. The man was apologetic, but much like the podcast incident, it was really all my fault. It was at this moment that a woman who had seen the whole thing turned to me with a sympathetic expression and said,

"C'est une expérience de la vie."

...I was so angry with myself. All those blueberries, expensive blueberries, lost by one thoughtless action, but yes, it was an experience in life. I was in a new city, riding the metro, experiencing Montreal life with a grocery cart full of local produce. To top it off I had interacted with two kind Francophone individuals (the man who was really my "expérience" accomplice and a woman who was my kindhearted judge. 

When I got home that day all I could do was to try my best to enjoy the food that had not spilled, and when I got home from the podcast recording that was not a podcast recording the other day all I could do was enjoy my leftovers of Tamale Pie with Chili-Cornmeal Crust. I got there. See? It wasn't the end of the world, just one more experience in life.

1 tsp oil
1 lb ground lamb from Agneau Des Venne farm (plateau and mile end farmers' markets)
3 small lamb sausages from Agneau Des Venne farm (plateau and mile end farmers' markets. That leaves 4 leftover to make jambalaya...coming soon)
2 onions, diced
1/2 head bok choy, sliced and diced
1 cup green beans, diced
1 jalapeno pepper, optional. I skipped it but only because I didn't have one
1 tbsp chili powder (this makes up for the loss of heat, but not of flavour from the jalapeno)
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp oregano (fresh is best, but dried is fine)
1 tsp salt (make sure your sausages, stock and refried beans aren't overwhelmingly salty or you'll have to reduce this)
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 cup ketchup (I only had about 1/2 cup, and it made a big difference! I use a no-sugar-added variety, but Heinz will give you a much higher sugar content. Be careful!)
2 cups (1 can) refried beans
1 cup lamb stock (or beef or chicken. Not vegetable. That's just weird since it's a heavy meat dish. Even chicken is best only used in dire straits)
1 1/2 cup corn kernels
1 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup flour (all purpose is best for consistency, but I ran out of my gluten-free flour blend, so I used whole wheat. It was just fine, but just not as smooth as it would have been)
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 cup milk (or almond breeze, or soy milk)
1/4 cup melted butter (or margarine or Earth Balance)
1 egg, beaten with a fork or whisked
1 cup Monterey Jack cheese (optional. I did not use this...but I think it would have helped. With the cornmeal the topping tasted just a little bitter and I think the cheese would have covered that up, especially since there's no sugar. It also makes it a whole lot richer, so if you're watching fat content, be aware!
1 can chopped mild green chilies (Okay, Montreal, now I know that the city has some great Mexican grocery stores, but there seem to be none in my area. I went to the Atwater market and nowhere could I find a proper can of chopped green chilies. My fallback place, Les Douceurs du Marché, providers of all things gourmet and obscure, especially in packaged, imported and canned goods, almost failed me. They had one option for canned chilies and they were no where near mild. I would not call jalapenos "mild". I ended up using an entire jar of sliced (not chopped, but that's pedantic) in this topping. Needless to say it more than made up for the lack of jalapeno in the base. Heat would have been coming out my ears had I added the optional fresh jalapeno. I really, really liked the chili-studded topping though. It turned into a real Mexican treat and not just a meat pie from just about anywhere. 

I never thought I'd make this recipe in the first place, but I went to the Plateau farmers' market one day and the guy at the Agneau des Venne stand (lamb and sheep from the Venne farm in the upper Laurentians in Quebec) looked at me in the way that means "You're not a customer." It's that look where there are free samples and they definitely think you're just there for the samples. Well, I was a little offended, even though the man was very nice, but he deals with this all farmers' market long. So I started asking questions and sampling (and I rarely eat any kind of sausage but I tried 4 lamb ones) and decided it was high time I made some jambalaya. The picture above is obviously not jambalaya, but I remembered also looking through my slow-cooker cookbook and seeing a recipe for a tamale pie that I was pretty sure involved some ground beef as well. So I bought some ground lamb and some merguez sausages (not exactly traditional for a tamale, but very, very delicious with a hot sweetness). Sure proved that man wrong, didn't I...

The recipe is actually a whole lot like a shepherd's pie but with some added chili heat in the crust itself. I changed some of the ingredients (I didn't have carrots, but I had green beans. I didn't have celery but I had the white part of bok choy) but it all worked out really well.

Tamales aren't just Mexican, so I should really shouldn't be saying this is specifically a Mexican-style dish. Apparently they go back to the Mayans and the Incas, so about 5000BC. Also, the whole point of tamales is they get stuffed in plantain leaves or corn husks and there is definitely no stuffing here. That's kind of like saying a shepherd's pie is a sandwich, or even a sandwich pie. That's just weird. 
Anyway, I love doughs, so sticking a spicy, moist dough on top of a stew of spicy, richly-flavoured meat is what I think of as a great idea, whatever the name. 

I changed the recipe process a little too:
Sauté the ground lamb and sausages (removed from casings) in the heated oil until there's no more pink. 

Remove the meat with a slotted spoon to a pig plate layered with some paper towel to absorb the fat. Don't press down with the paper towel (you want some juices to remain) but you don't want the excess. Yes you're draining flavour too, but there's more than enough flavour leftover. Don't worry. This makes the difference between 20 grams of fat in the meal and 30...approximately. Place the meat in the slow-cooker (or a deep-dish, large baking dish or casserole, for a non-slow-cooker version)
Drain the fat from the skillet (not into the sink...into a glass jar that you can keep in the fridge until full and then throw out. Or you could re-use the fat soon since it is so delicious, but it won't last forever unless you freeze it and then I'm not even sure because of the spices and things in the sausages. Help?
You don't need to wipe the pan, but just by pouring off the fat, there'll be enough left to sauté the onions, green beans, and bok choy over medium heat. After 5 minutes add the jalapeno (optional) and the base spices. 

 Cook 1 minute then add the ketchup and refried beans. 
Mix and then add the lamb stock (or beef or chicken) and the corn. Bring to a boil and then transfer it to the slow-cooker. Stir into the meat.
Now a little bit of baking, but don't worry baking novices, this is a very safe intro. 
In a big bowl combine the dry ingredients (cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt and pepper) with a whisk or a big wooden spoon or a spatula...or just a big spoon of whatever sort. The whisk is best because it adds air to the topping, making it lighter and fluffier in the end. Make a well in the middle. In a small bowl melt the butter to have it ready to go. In another small bowl beat the egg with a whisk or a fork. Only now pour the butter, whisked egg and milk into the well in the flours. If the butter is too hot and you add it to the egg or milk in that state, it may cook the egg or curdle the milk a little. Not the end of the world, but not the lightest, fluffiest cornmeal dough ever. 

Whisk all the ingredients together (or stir) and then add the cheese (optional) and chopped chilies. 

This time I just stir because the dough gets stuck in the whisk when it's too thick. It's good to use it in the last step when the dough is being combined, even if it does get stuck, but now it's not such a big deal. 
Spread the dough evenly on top of the base in the slow-cooker and cook on high for 3-4 hours or low for 6-8. I chose low for 5 and then high for 1 and that also worked out fine. Normally I wouldn't be so bold, but the meat is basically already cooked and you're just supposed to cook until the top is risen and crusty. My slow-cooker cooks a bit unevenly so one side of the crust was fairly brown and definitely ready and the other was a tiny bit soft, so I ate from the crisp side and will make sure the rest gets thoroughly microwaved or baked in reheating leftovers another day.

You can also mix the meat and vegetables in a large casserole dish, pour the topping evenly over the filling, and bake at about 375 Fahrenheit for about 45 minutes, is my guess. That is very much just a guess, so make sure you watch it and take it out when the topping has risen and is crusty and slightly browned. The meat should be bubbling underneath.

Mmm...pie. Spicy pie. It's not a tamale, but it's has a whole lot more meat, and a whole lot more comfort, than a skimpy cornmeal-wrapped chicken or beef thing.